On the wing

  • Jodi Peterson


Eerie, whirring calls fill the air on a chilly April morning. Hundreds of sandhill cranes congregate along the edges of Fruitgrowers Reservoir, on the southern flank of western Colorado's Grand Mesa. Tucked amid cropland and sage-dotted pastures, the reservoir is a crucial rest stop on the birds' long spring migration from New Mexico north to Montana, Idaho and Canada. They kited in the previous evening just before sundown, back-flapping their great wings, lowering their spindly landing gear. Now, some stalk the shore, seeking bugs and grain; others preen their sleek sand-gray feathers, getting ready to take flight once again.

As the sun warms the air, the cranes hurl themselves into the sky. They trumpet wildly, extending their legs backward and their necks forward until they resemble flying arrows. Then they knit themselves into ragged V formations, spiraling up and up to gain the altitude they need to cross the 10,000-foot-high mesa. Their feathers flash silver in the morning light, and their rolling chirrs grow fainter and fainter as they head north.

Watching them go, I get goosebumps, and not just from the cool breeze. The sandhills have been following this flyway for thousands of years, their movement to summer breeding grounds driven by instinct.

It makes me think about my own migration. Six years ago, I moved from the urban Front Range of Colorado, where I'd spent my entire life, to the quiet Western Slope. Seeking meaning and community, I left the big city and a big corporation to pursue nonprofit journalism in a small town. And I've never felt the urge to go back -- unlike the cranes, my migratory journey is apparently one-way only.

The writers in this special "books and essays" issue of High Country News have also been thinking about migration, both animal and human. Compelled by economics, love or circumstance, perhaps even by an instinct we're no longer aware of, we leave one home in search of another. Author George Sibley ponders the ways in which humans resemble cranes, and asks what we can learn from our own imaginative efforts to teach endangered whooping cranes how to migrate. Writer Jeremy N. Smith describes his migration from Chicago to Montana, paralleling the early travels of traders and missionaries; like them, he makes surprising discoveries along the way, including the tiny Western namesake of his hometown. Others yearn for a home they've never seen -- Michelle Theriault Boots profiles Iñupiaq poet Joan Kane, who longs to visit the land of her ancestors, a wild, uninhabited island in the Bering Sea. Author Ted Conover, interviewed by Matthew Fleischer, discusses the corridors of modern migration -- our ever-growing network of roads and the innate contradiction they embody, between mobility and sustainability.

Perhaps you're also considering migration this fall. Maybe the U-Haul is loaded and you're ready to head out to a new place and establish a new home. Or maybe you feel pulled no farther than the nearest trailhead. Wherever your journey may take you, we hope you'll find enjoyment and inspiration in this issue of HCN.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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